BILLINGS, Mont. — State wildlife officials recommended Monday that Montana resume the hunting of bison that leave Yellowstone National Park in search of winter forage, possibly by the end of this year.
The hunting resumption was listed as the preferred alternative in an environmental assessment released by Montana's Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks. It would allow for up to 25 bison to be shot by hunters each winter.
The managed hunt would occur in areas outside the park where wandering bison are currently tolerated under a joint state-federal management plan, said Kurt Alt, a regional wildlife manager with the agency. The plan also would allow hunting in areas where bison from Yellowstone currently are hazed, captured or killed by government officials to keep them roaming, he said.
The hunting season would run from Nov. 15 to Feb. 15, Alt said.
The assessment detailed four alternatives. They ranged from no change from current practices, to a more liberal hunt in which up to 225 bison could be killed.
A list of conditions common to the alternatives permitting hunting, he said, include limiting the types of weapons that can be used and not allowing hunting within 100 yards of major highways.
Public comment is being taken until July 9, and a final decision could come yet this summer, Alt said. It is possible a hunt could be in place as early as this year, he added.
Last year, the state Legislature passed a measure giving the Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission authority to establish a bison hunt. The environmental assessment is one piece in determining whether a hunt is feasible and desirable, according to the document.
Bison from the park have been hunted before in Montana; during the winter of 1988-89, hunters killed 569 bison on the park's northern boundary. But the hunt was ended by the Legislature after a storm of protests about shooting Yellowstone wildlife.
The hunt itself also was criticized as less than sporting. Yellowstone bison are accustomed to seeing humans, and game wardens led each hunter directly to the animal to be killed. The hunters shot at close range at animals that often were standing still, grazing.
Montana wildlife officials finally lobbied the Legislature to end the hunt, saying it tarnished the reputation of the state's hunters.
Jim Posewitz, executive director of Orion The Hunter's Institute of Helena, said the 2003 legislation that authorized the hunt to resume was partly in response to growing interest among hunters.
"In recent years, there have been more and more hunters who have had a desire to resume some level of hunting of bison north of the park," he said.
But state Sen. Gary Perry, R-Manhattan, who sponsored the bill, said it also was intended to prompt greater discussions about how the animals were being managed when they left the park.
Alt said if bison hunting resumes, it would not be a "major population management tool."
He said any hunt would be in addition to the existing interagency bison management plan, which allows for hazing and capture of bison and for testing bison for brucellosis. Ranchers and livestock industry officials in the state worry that wandering bison could transmit the disease to cattle, and bison that test positive are sent to slaughter.
Brucellosis control was the justification cited by Montana in the earlier hunt.
Karen Cooper, a spokeswoman with the state Department of Livestock, one of the agencies involved in the bison management plan, said a hunt would be viewed simply as an extension of that plan.
A message left for a spokeswoman at Yellowstone was not immediately returned.